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Mime Conversationalist

[ 8 ] May 9, 2010 |

I’m living in China, a country where English isn’t spoken as widely as most English speakers would like. Despite all my efforts I epically fail at speaking Mandarin or picking up any second language for that matter (though I’ve not yet given up!).  Living in China, I often find myself in situations when I start to wonder how I’ve survived living here for this long speaking such minimal Mandarin.

One of the advantages of being so blatantly crap at speaking Mandarin is that I’ve been able to improve my mime skills to almost professional levels (nearly performing on the Champs d’ Elysees standards!) well, that’s what my 9 year old students think of my mime skills. When my Mandarin speaking and phrasebook reading fails me, being a mime conversationalist is my saving grace.


So how does a mime conversation work exactly I hear you ask? Well first of all it starts with someone repeatedly saying something to me in Mandarin and me repeatedly staring blankly back at them. The staring by me and Mandarin speaking by them is then followed by and interesting display of acting, pointing and other unusual movements by both parties. The end result is always one of three things: we somehow mime to a point where we think we understand each other clearly, they give up and try to find someone who speaks English or both parties mutually agree to just give up!

There has been many a time when I’ve been caught in a conversation of mime. At the supermarket mime is a common occurrence. Just last week I had a whole mime conversation about loyalty cards, well at least that’s what I gathered from the miming.  How did I figure this?  Well, not only am I a regular at the supermarket and usually served by the same 3 people (so of course they would ask if I had a loyalty card), the checkout chick was making a shape with her hands that looked like it could be a loyalty card (or any card for that matter).  While creating an invisible loyalty card with her hands she repeatedly said the same phrase over and over again then pointing to me. It was clear as crystal, clearly she wanted to know if I had a loyalty card and clearly because of my lack of Mandarin speaking there was no way I did, so no loyalty points for me!

The most interesting, hilarious and sometimes intrusive mime conversations I have are always with the ladies that work in my building. They will often come knocking on my door at strange times in the night (though never after 10pm). We have had many great conversations about my broken washing matching, leaky shower and them wanting to use my fridge  to store the nasty leftovers from the school cafeteria.

Through our mime conversation and not so mimed laughing I’ve discovered that they are fascinated with how  foreign I look. One night they came to visit, no really they just wanted to use my fridge again and as it always happens when they come to use my fridge we start chatting in mime. The two of them turned to each other and started speaking quickly, I’m so used to this by now I just drifted off into my own little English speaking world.  They started pointing at my eyes, they then proceed to open there eyes as wide as is physically possible then pointed again at mine and grinned. After this strange display of eye widening they started pointing at my eyelashes then reached out to touch them.  This was rather creepy not to mention hazardous, what  if one had accidentally poked me straight in the eye with their long well manicures fingers.  Of course I can understand their fascination with this foreign girl with big hazel eyes and long curly eyelashes.

After expressing their facination with my eyes and eyelashes, to my discomfort they walk behind me and tapped my bottom.  They went far beyond just tapping and actually lifted up the back of my top to have a long hard look and to continually slap it. I never though anyone could be so fascinated by a bottom! Hearing the music pumping from my laptop they decided that they were going to demonstrate their amazing dance moves and as my living area is the size of a dancefloor it was rather appropriate. They indicated to me to show them my moves, 30 seconds later I had 2 Chinese women trying to break it down hip-hop style minus the apparently massive foreign bottom that is needed to do those dancemoves justice!

If anyone told you the art of mime is long dead then come to China, you will quickly realise that is still very much alive. Take it from a Mime Conversationalist expert, it’s in your best interests to get pretty darn good at it!


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Category: Expat Stories

About onurwaytravel: Colin has been travelling the world with his young family for the past 2 and half years. He runs a couple of websites all revolve around travel, family travel and digital nomadism. His websites include,, and now View author profile.

Comments (8)

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sasha Peakall. Sasha Peakall said: New Post: Mime Conversationalist …Check it out!!! #lp #MatadorN #travel [...]

  2. Lucy B says:

    I can picture the above ‘breaking it down’ scene and am LOLing at that very thought.
    I hope you are enjoying yourself over there :-)

  3. Sasha says:

    Thanks Lucy!!! Yeah it was definitely a moment to tell the Grandkids!!! Haha I bet they taught those moves to their kids when they went home for the weekend!!! I’m having the time of my life here, who knows when I will decide I actually want to leave!!! :)

  4. [...] town.  After a complicated conversation in both Chinese (mostly by my friend Duncan) and a lot of mime by me (which proved to be successful) we figured out that we needed to catch one bus and then [...]

  5. [...] be in until 5am.  What should I do?  The taxi driver waited there as I decided what to do, I mimed to him that I would call them, he mimed to me to bang on the window, so that’s what I did.  Up [...]

  6. [...] was it?, what did it eat? etc.  I was able to muster up enough Chinese words and with the help of mime I was able to have a basic conversation. The toothless guy seemed pretty excited to be telling me [...]

  7. Connie

    I think pantomining conversations is one of the best things about travel! It forces us to rethink the way we communicate in general with others and it’s a new challenge. Yes, it’s frustrating but so much fun! I guess I just like gesticulating a lot…

  8. [...] unlikely to speak much if any English!  But don’t worry with a phrasebook in hand and some mime, it might take a while but you will be able to [...]

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